We all struggle with it, and it seems the more important a thing is, the more we put off, delay or actively avoid getting started.
You know how it goes – Let’s just do this first, whether it’s tidying the house, getting the washing done, one more coffee, maybe phoning a friend… and soon enough the day is over and we have managed to avoid doing the one thing that would have really made us feel good about ourselves.
Sometimes, we continue procrastinating until just before a deadline. And then we end up frustrated and down on ourselves for not being able to ‘just do it!’
Here’s the science bit
Behavioural psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called ‘time inconsistency,’ which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards.
Although it’s true that some of us who procrastinate have a faulty sense of time — we think we have more time to get something done than we actually do, recent research now suggests procrastination is linked to difficulty managing distress. Specifically, when we view a task as unpleasant and make a huge deal out of it (‘It will be hard, boring, painful…’), we are more likely to put it off. But although we may be trying to avoid distress, ironically this approach can cause more distress in the long run and lead to increased stress, health issues, and poorer performance.
Present Self and Future Self
People who struggle with procrastination can spend hours distracting themselves instead of addressing obligations that require time and effort. Imagine that you have two selves: your Present Self and your Future Self. When you set goals for yourself — like learning a language or losing weight or writing a book — you are actually making plans for your Future Self. You are visualising what you want your life to be like in the future. When you think about your Future Self, it is quite easy for your brain to see the value in taking actions with long-term benefits. The Future Self values long-term rewards.
However, while the Future Self can set goals, only the Present Self can take action. When you actively make a decision, you are no longer making a choice for your Future Self. Now you are in the present moment, and your brain is thinking about the Present Self. And Present Self really likes instant gratification, not long-term payoff.
So, Present Self and Future Self are often at odds with one another. Future Self wants to write another blog post or book chapter, but Present Self wants another coffee and to check his social media. Future Self wants to feel financially secure, but Present Self wants to download another box set. Future Self wants an increased client base, but Present Self thinks it’s a good time to read the paper. You get the idea.
Our brains value long-term benefits when they are in the future (tomorrow), but right now in the present moment (today) it values immediate gratification.
Yet, during our more productive moments, when we temporarily figure out how to stop procrastinating, we feel good about ourselves, satisfied and accomplished. The good news is that with some simple strategies, and by reframing procrastination as a positive state, one that serves as preparation, thinking time, and planning, we can create new behaviours that offer us immediate rewards as well as getting the job done for Future Self.
Changing our behaviour changes our thinking
Make it easier to ease into the activities you tend to avoid. Unpleasant or daunting tasks won’t get completed if you wait to be ‘in the mood,’ so some creative reframing can go a long way towards changing your behaviour around getting started.
We tend to avoid activities that provoke anxiety. We may predict that we’re not able to complete a project, do it well, or cope with how unpleasant it is. This anxiety can lead to avoidance. Instead of berating yourself for not getting the task done and wasting yet another day – negative self-talk is debilitating and tends to sneak up on you – consider the time until you ‘feel ready’ to tackle it as preparation.
Somehow the act of thinking about a project, without actually starting it, helps to get you into the state of mind necessary to continue. So give yourself permission, and time, to think about what needs to be done, how to make it happen, how long it will take, and then break the project into smaller and more manageable tasks as a proven way to get things done.
Then doing something small connected with the project eases you into the next stage: perhaps doing some research, or listing a few bullet points for development later, or drawing a diagram of what you want the finished product to look like.
Scheduling is another method of preparation. When you plan to do something and write it down, you’ve established the project as something significant that is to be completed, and that alone can have a big impact. Use an electronic calendar to set up reminders, like texts, emails, or pop-up notifications on your phone. See our earlier post on GTD: the art of getting things done.
In the zone
Controlling your environment makes it easier to get started. Bring your coffee and put that favourite snack by your laptop before you start working. Tidying that messy desk before you start, and adjusting the lights, temperature or music might also help get you prepared for a difficult project.
Think about when you worked best and aim to reproduce the conditions – perhaps you actually need silence to work, or classical music rather than the radio blaring? Are you physically comfortable? Ultimately, the more you can control your environment in preparation for tasks you tend to put off, the more likely it is that you’ll take the first step toward completing them.
Reinforcement and reward
Our preference for distractions over obligations is in part explained by how different types of tasks are reinforced. Reinforcement refers to a consequence that increases the likelihood of a particular behaviour. To use consequences to your advantage, think about how you can reinforce your procrastinated behaviour frequently as a reward for small achievements connected to the task, rather than a distraction keeping you from getting the job done.
When you have completed one of the smaller tasks of your project, reinforce / reward yourself with one of the activities you previously chose while procrastinating. For example, after you complete a defined amount of work, you can watch Netflix, have another coffee, walk on the beach, call a friend, read a book chapter, or any of the other things you’d rather be doing if you weren’t taking care of commitments.
Forgive yourself; and let go of perfectionism.
Stop beating yourself up about yesterday and use past procrastination to your advantage. By thinking about what went into your avoidance — fear, stress, lack of understanding of how to progress, lack of accountability – and using the reframing activities outlined above, you will feel less fearful next time around and more empowered. Gaining a few quick wins reinforces longer term behaviour.
The feeling of getting the job done is better than worrying about whether it’s perfect. Instead, focus on being better, rather than being perfect. You can still strive for excellence, create excellence, or set yourself up with excellent conditions and at the same time, focus on getting the job done.